Why is Tri Travel A Nightmare Right Now?

And what can you do to keep your trip running smoothly?

Photo: Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

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It’s every triathlete’s nightmare. You get to baggage claim only to discover that your gear didn’t make it to your destination. Whether it’s your wetsuit, helmet, and shoes, or even worse your bike, nothing puts the brakes on a race like lost equipment. 

When Sarah Latonas flew from Ontario to Idaho for 70.3 Coeur D’Alene a few weeks ago, she was horrified to discover that her race gear wasn’t in baggage claim. “When my bike bag didn’t arrive, and United couldn’t tell me where it was, I started to panic,” she said. “At that point, I was worried the bag was lost, and I wouldn’t be able to race. I’ve never had this happen before.”

In desperation, she posted about her dilemma in the race’s Facebook group and, almost immediately, got responses from 13 different people willing to lend her bikes, shoes, helmets, and wetsuits. 

“I was amazed by how many people immediately offered to help, no strings attached,” she said. “In my experience, the Ironman community is very tight knit and supportive, but the response I received was above and beyond what I dared hope for.”

Luckily, at 9 p.m. the night before the race, Latonas’ gear arrived, and she didn’t have to lean on the kindness of strangers, but not everyone has been so lucky lately. Even Olympic champ Flora Duffy found herself the victim of recent airline woes. Although she took a direct flight from Denver to Montreal, her bike never made it on the plane for 70.3 Mont Tremblant. Unfortunately, she ultimately wasn’t able to race, but she’s not alone. Olympic silver medalist Georgia Taylor-Brown’s gear never made it back from the Montreal race to the UK, and a number of pros attempting to fly in to Edmonton for the PTO Canadian Open at the end of the month said their flights have been cancelled or changed.

What’s the problem with the airlines right now?

Flights are overbooked and airlines are understaffed. Thousands of flights are being delayed or cancelled, and there aren’t enough pilots, crew, and ground personnel to operate the rest. Oil prices have skyrocketed and fares have also been outrageously high. 

These problems are the result of a severe supply-demand imbalance. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, tens of thousands of workers left the industry due to layoffs, employee buy-outs, and early retirement. Companies sold their planes and equipment to recoup costs. Now that travel restrictions have eased, travelers are ready to hit the skies again, but airlines haven’t been able to get back to full capacity at the same rate.

In June, 23% of flights were late and nearly 3% were canceled.

“Mainline carriers, especially the big three—United, Delta, and American—have taken as many pilots as they can from their regional partners, leaving regional flights without enough pilots to work,” said CP, a flight attendant. “We don’t have enough people to work these flights—from pilots, to flight attendants, to gate agents, to grounds crew. Everyone is being overworked.”

Compound these issues with the higher incidence of turbulent weather in the summer, and it’s literally the perfect storm. 

What can you do to make it to your race (with all your equipment)?

After spending months, and even years, training for a big race, the last thing you want is for a delayed flight or missing bag to derail your plans. While much of this is out of your control, there are a few tips to increase your odds of success.   

1. Know how, and where, to book the right fare.

If a flight is oversold, and nobody volunteers to give up their seat, the first people to get bumped are those who saved a bit of money booking on a website like Expedia, instead of booking directly through an airline. “Never, and I mean NEVER, buy from a third party website,” CP said. “When things go wrong, your airline can’t or won’t help.”

Also, purchasing travel insurance or booking with a credit card that offers similar purchase protection might help minimize the financial damages if you need to rebook. 

2. Check on-time statistics for your flight. 

This information is available upon request, by phone, for larger airlines, or online at the Department of Travels Bureau of Transportation Statistics website. For example, the highest on-time arrival rates through April 2022 were: Delta-81.9%, United-80.9%, and Hawaiian-80.8% and the lowest were Jet Blue-53.3%, Frontier-58.4%, and Spirit-58.5%. 

3. Book the first flight out in the morning (or for several days before you need to be there). 

As the day goes on, the likelihood for delays and cancellations significantly increases. Also, summer storms build in the afternoon, which can cause re-routing. 

“Early morning flights rarely have issues,” CP said. “Also, try to fly the day before, so you give yourself plenty of time in case things go wrong.”

4. Schedule longer layovers and limit connections.

The typical one-hour layover isn’t enough anymore, because if a delay happens and baggage crews are short-staffed, your gear might not make the connection. CP says a three-hour layover is the best bet to ensure your baggage makes it to your connecting flight.

“When a flight is cancelled, passengers get out on other flights, but the grounds crew don’t have any connection to what happens inside the terminal, so your bag is waiting to get on your original flight, or the next available flight,” CP said.

Also, a direct flight reduces the likelihood of your gear being lost in transit. Another way to help ensure your baggage arrives at your final destination is to check in early. With a last-minute check-in, you could make the flight, but your bags might not. 

5. Download the airline’s app.

Not only can you get a virtual boarding pass and view the status of an incoming plane, you can also track bags and make a flight change. Often, the app will update you of a delay or cancellation long before gate agents make an announcement, so you can get a jump on making other arrangements.  

6. Get the airline to replace (or pay for) your bags. 

Under DOT regulations for domestic travel, airlines are required to compensate passengers if bags are damaged, delayed, or lost. However, this won’t help if your baggage is a $5,000 triathlon bike, and your race is in 24 hours. If your bag hasn’t arrived, file a claim ASAP with the airline, keep records of the employee you spoke with, retain baggage receipts, and stay in close communication. Also, ask for a phone number you can call to follow up on the status of the claim. According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Fly Rights, an airline might have to pay for the rental of replacement sporting equipment if it comes to that. 

If a bag is lost, an airline is responsible for compensating you for the bag’s contents and refunding any fees for transportation of the bag. For domestic flights, the maximum liability amount is $3,800, and they will likely require proof of contents. 

7. Pack, and fly, smart

If you plan to use a bike box to ship your rig, consider putting gear like your wetsuit, bike shoes, and helmet into a separate bag to increase the odds that at least some of your equipment arrives at your destination. 

Of course, always label the outside, and inside, of your bags with contact information. Consider putting an Apple AirTag, Tile, or similar tracker on your important luggage. While these devices rely on Bluetooth technology for short-range tracking, there’s a way to locate the device if it’s farther away. For an AirTag, mark it as lost within the Apple Find My app. For a Tile, use the Notify When Found or Most Recent Location feature.  

“Given the post-COVID chaos that’s currently impacting the airline industry, I would fly three days before a race, instead of two, to give myself more of a buffer in case of issues such as lost bags, flight delays, or cancellations,” Latonas said. “I would also try to have more direct flights and longer layovers. I might also start bringing my wetsuit, shoes, and helmet as carry-on, just in case.”

RELATED: A Pro’s Guide to Packing and Traveling With Your Bike

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